Japan does not feature on most honeymoon destination lists. It should, as we unspooled the various seductions of the country. Devanshi Mody
It’s like a scene from a Bond film. I’m lying face-down on a futon in a tatami-matted ryokan suite perched over Arashiyama’s river. A comely creature straddles my back, impaling me with needles. But she’s no Bond girl. She’s Hoshinoya Kyoto’s svelte-waisted acupuncturist, Yoshida Zukeran. Cooing by me, composing incense fragrances in a pot, is the bone-china-fine manageress Saeko. At my feet kneels the gentle Kanna. She dispenses complimentary hand-crafted chestnut and dandelion sweets sourced from a centuries-old Kyoto sweet-shop. They make up a harem of three angels—every man’s dream. Maybe not on honeymoon.
River-set on Katsura’s jade-blue silken sleeve, on a peel of land wound around Arashiyama’s verdured hills, this heritage villa is accessed romantically via boat. Incense perfumes the air; a strumming musician seems afloat on a waterbody; the river’s meander rises to a zen garden. Echeloned, moss-draped stones lead to the Ku Suite, extended over the water as if lending its ear to the river’s perpetual serenade. Were I sitting on the living room’s Japanese low seats, I’d behold the parade of the seasons. But no, I’m lying face-down with the beauteous needle-wielding Yoshida Zukeran bestriding my back. And I’m thinking Japan’s women don’t have the smiting sensuality of a Greek goddess, but rather a quiet allure, a soft insidious charm. Likewise, Japan isn’t about grandiose, awe-striking landscapes. Its appeal lies in pretty parcels of enchantment. It’s a honeymooning Elysium.
Unsurprisingly, a Chinese couple at Hoshinoya Kyoto forsake sightseeing to spend a day sunk in low chairs on the library’s terrace strip, sipping matcha green tea as the river marches by. Later, when we cross paths in Gion, the lady is in geisha garb. The shop windows announce ‘kimonos for rent.’ Ah, so Kyoto’s ubiquitous kimono-caparisoned women are tourists! And the one ‘real’ geisha descried—a white-faced girl with upturned hair puckered in plastic flowers posing with three giddy American lasses—could well be Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. The geisha culture of Japan is obsolescent, a romantic vestige of the past.
It’s tragic, for later in Kyushu in southern Japan, the encyclopaedic Shimotakehara-san of Ibusuki Hakusuikan (where, incidentally, Sean Connery and Bond girl Mie Hama stayed during the filming of You Only Live Twice) reveals one could marry geishas (Japanese premiers have), and they would seem ideal wives (extracted expensively from geisha houses). ‘Geisha’ means ‘person of artistic skill,’ and traditionally, they have been consummate in the arts. Products of 10-15 years of meticulous crafting, geishas converse, sing, play the shamisen (a three-string Japanese instrument), dance, and showcase Japanese elegance at its best. Extant is the idea that pleasuring a man carnally doesn’t suffice; a woman must thrill him cerebrally.
I’m not a man, but I appreciate a woman with cerebral edge. And so, at Japan’s plushest address, the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, over an elaborate breakfast service (think fruit and yogurts rolled to your table on a trolley), amidst Pierre Hermé viennoiserie and finery, what impresses me is Ouyang Xinchun—not for any extraordinary sensual endowment but for her informative eloquence. I ask why the Chinese hostess is in Kyoto when China is more ancient and inspired everything in Kyoto. “Because,” she smiles, “in China, civil wars destroyed culture. Here, in Kyoto, Chinese culture is modified and preserved.”
Kyoto has an unseemly number of UNESCO-stamped sites. Perhaps more because Japan funds UNESCO than for their intrinsic merit. Yet, the Kinkaku-ji Temple is a fantasy. The famed Golden Pavilion looks like a delicate gilded casket afloat on a mirror pond, its reflection perfectly, wondrously, rectilinear with the actual edifice. Pine trees with flying tufts of hair arch slenderly over the tranquil face of the water. I’m bewitched. Bewilderment takes over at the Ryōan-ji Temple’s famously mystifying rock garden, where tourists sit in rapt contemplation as if epiphany-struck. Rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes. I muse instead at why Bollywood hasn’t hijacked the enthralling stroll gardens with trim wooden bridges swooned over serene ponds to shoot some raunchy, tawdry, girl-flies-into-boy’s-arms number. Wild Bollywoodian gyrations would be a tad difficult in the tight mesmerising maze of Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest. There are no gardens at Tō-ji Temple, but the majestic five-tiered pagoda impresses and causes neck strain as my eyes climb to its sky-piercing tip.
I’m relieved when, back at the Ritz-Carlton at La Locanda, Chef Tatsuya Ozajka’s Kyoto-inspired Italian cuisine keeps my neck bent on the plate. But my eyes stray to a heritage structure transposed to the restaurant and turned into an astonishing, private dining room with enormous romantic potential.
Why would anyone go to Osaka? Just to stay at the Ritz- Carlton Osaka! I love the Georgian-mansion recreation abounding with European paintings, antiques, fine China, Persian carpets, and the quintessence of Japanese omotenashi. Rooms are ample, beds plump. The spa is excellent, the food even better. At Japanese restaurant Hanagatami, tempura as crisp as a cricket is paired inspiredly with champagne.
I’ve resolved I shan’t be banal; I shan’t venture Fuji. But everyone’s talking about glamping at Hoshinoya Fuji. Cabins are unapologetically exiguous, bellowing ‘Get Out!’ Out onto that swank Sky Terrace embowed in crisp skies kissed by soaring trees. So romantic! And then, the ‘sweet time’ shatters when the kids troop up. But these are no obstreperous desi brats. There are goodies galore— marshmallows to barbecue on the camp fire, homemade cookies, chocolate, ice cream, and seasonal jams including cherry blossom—enough to incite a rampage. Yet, these Asian toddlers queue up with their plates with admirable poise, and their parents don’t uproot other children in a voracious onslaught. On the hike to a hilltop to spot Fuji’s famous lakes, no bawling bairn desecrates the silence. The discipline impresses, as does the outdoor-dining back at the resort. There’s Dutch Oven Dinner, Pressed Sandwich Breakfast, etc. The marvellous Breakfast Box is presented out on my S Cabin terrace rigged out with a fireplace to sit by in a fringe of cherry blossoms.
As I plunder voluptuous billows of Dutch-oven bread, flask-served ‘glamping soup,’ and glorious rustic-chic food, the mist slips down Mt. Fuji, which looms yonder, like a damsel shedding lace lingerie. It’s morning striptease! Things get hotter still over the sultry night-time ‘glamping curry,’ accompanied by a box of aphrodisiacal spices to play around with. Spectacularly good regional wines abet romantics with postprandial frolics. At the camp fire, a guitarist plays under a brilliance of stars.
In the Monte Carlo-esque maritime purlieus of Atami at the hill-perched, ultra-luxe Hiramatsu Resort Atami, I discover Japan’s most exquisite suite. It’s called Matsu (pine), and it’s girded by a private garden with pine trees and a traditional teahouse. A ravishment of antiques, artefacts, and paintings are disposed in a dining room indented with Japanese-style low seating; opulent beds heave under a blaze of deep orange satin like a drape of molten lava. This is a contemporary ryokan, but traditional ryokan precepts are upheld. On entry, I’m relieved of my footwear and supplied slippers. But these must be left outside my room—can’t profane that super-fine tatami! Soon, Manager Madame Arai, exuding French chic but inveterately Japanese, deploys the tailcoats-clad Indonesian steward Arga Stepanus (the only English-speaking staff member) to impart some guidelines: different footwear applies to the bathroom that stocks fragrant Bulgari Red Tea toiletries for ablutions, and yet others to the terrace where a jazzy onsen courts a waterbody that seems in passionate embrace with the horizon. It’s sacrilege to violate footwear commandments. I suspect CCTV cameras monitor guests’ feet. The slippers outside my suite suffice for the charming French gastronomic restaurant, which lures the Francophile Japanese.
Slipper strictures aren’t enforced at the zen-like, garden- set ‘Ryokan Collection’ Beniya Mukayu in Kanazawa where the owner, Mrs. Nakamichi, flits about in a kimono, epitomising Japanese grace and graciousness, and Mr. Nakamichi (also in kimono) conducts Japanese tea ceremonies in the gardened teahouse. But the guest relations team is expat, and the British Edward Kidson won’t impose on uninitiated foreigners the bizarreries of Japanese footwear dictates, which by now I find deeply fascinating, given the alarm across ryokans at every faux pas. Spartan, sophisticated Beniya Mukayu is about clean living and reiterates lean Japanese cuisine, including limpid broths, and the spa over which Mrs. Nakamichi officiates. Suites have terraced onsens ensconced in a verdant droop of foliage; guests languish here all day long. Pity, because immaculate Kanazawa—with its bosky environs and ink- sketch skies—enraptures like little else. Edward dispatches me to shrines twice as old as Kyoto’s temples and shops with resplendent ceramics and lacquerware. But it’s erring in wooded wonderland that enthrals. There’s nothing more exhilarating in Japan than the stroll in Yamanaka down the river with its leaping, garrulous waters under an arch of lush, green trees.
Then, I move to the bounteous northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It’s a picturesque drive to Niseko, but I didn’t quite anticipate the remote forested bewitchment of the contemporary ryokan Zaborin. It’s a live-in art gallery. But the real art is in architect Makoto Nakayama’s cunning use of glass that frames the ethereal natural surrounds into a seeming stream of paintings. Behind the bar, the snow- capped Mount Yōtei looks like a picture, while the glassy fish-tank-like rooms present a dizzying array of forested trees or bucolic idyll: think cow-dotted meadows or rill-run forest to be imbibed from a terraced onsen. But the greatest asset is tunnel-engineer-turned-chef Oshihiro Seno, so crafty he can turn pickle into porcelain (no need to turn water into wine—Zaborin boasts an excursive wine library). Seco exalts even breakfast to an art when the stoic tea master opens a sliver of window to let in a humming zephyr. And post-supper is the escort up to the ‘living room,’ which frames an ingeniously lit outdoors. It’s as if I’ve entered an enchanted garden. With the daintiest dessert to go!
From northern Niseko, I plummet to the southern rainforested island of Yakushima off Kyushu. Steve Bell from YES! Yakushima awaits me at the ferry station. The US Ambassador’s favourite guide has foisted elsewhere an American earthworm-specialist professor to show me around. We step onto a light-skinned beach in the arms of blue seas, and Steve tells me about the idiosyncratic breeding practices of indigenous turtles. I’m next shown a spider. It’s a jorō-gumo—that’s what the Japanese call a “man-eating woman.”
Then, Steve plunges me with punch and passion, even poetry, into Yakushima’s rainforests, history, and culture. As we traipse through moss-bearded gardens, cross roaring rivers, climb into enormous, hollowed-out, old trees, and clamber high into the forest, Steve helps me along. “In 16 years of marriage, I haven’t held my wife’s hand as much,” he winks. Past tea plantations, waterfalls, and more thunderous rivers, we drive to Sankara Resort And Spa, the most glamorous address on the island where a Balinese- style villa with leaf-emblazoned upholstery is mine. And I discover Ambrosia, a gorgeous spinach-mango-apple- pineapple smoothie; I have six morning glasses by the sleek infinity pool that appears to slip into the sun-streaked horizon. Then, it’s spa time followed by Okas, where the Tokyo-set fly for gourmet champagne suppers.
Ah, Tokyo! That Bollywood film title, Love in Tokyo, has always perplexed me. I can’t think of any city more devoid of romance than Tokyo. Shopping impassions women, explaining the lure of the Ritz-Carlton connected to a mall. Alright, the urban ryokan Hoshinoya Tokyo’s onsen is monumentally sexy. Perhaps too sexy—fortressed in towering walls and open-air, it’s magnificent. But reach for your swimsuit, and the staff are scandalised. “No swimwear in onsen!” A towel- wrap? Not even that. You must enter the communal bath stark naked. I like cultural immersions, but not this one. The Four Seasons’ gastronomic restaurant Motif is full of couples, but I’m startled that the male adjunct’s only function is to click-click the adored one whose love affair is with herself. At the Shangri-La—Tokyo’s glitziest hotel—which has seductive rooms, romance packages, and an exclusive Horizon Club Lounge, I finally spot what the Japanese call a jorō- gumo: the British woman commands and the lackey-husband obeys, carrying her handbag and countless shopping bags. Well, everyone’s definition of love is different.
TAKE IT SLOW
Do not rush through the country, for Japan is all about grace. And its thrill does not lie in the chase, but in quiet acknowledgement of its natural charisma.
ANA (ana.co.jp) operates daily, direct flights from Mumbai and New Delhi to Tokyo.
TOKYO: Shangri-La Tokyo: Tokyo’s glitziest hotel, with an exclusive Horizon Club, popular Chi Spa, and more popular Lobby Lounge where the capital’s beautiful people gather over seasonal afternoon teas. Doubles from `39,167; shangri-la.com Four Seasons Tokyo: With only 57 rooms, it’s the world’s smallest Four Seasons. The hotel boasts Tokyo’s most romantic in-house gastronomic restaurant, Motif, and the best bar in town. Doubles from `31,048; fourseasons.com Hoshinoya Tokyo: Near the Imperial Gardens and exclusive to in-house guests. Rooms aren’t romantic, but cocoon you from the unremitting sound of trains that rattles most of the five-star hotels in Tokyo. The onsen amazes whilst the Plum Tree spa ritual for couples is Tokyo’s lushest. Doubles from `41,588; hoshinoya.com/tokyo Ritz-Carlton Tokyo: Expect Tokyo’s biggest rooms with Club Lounge access and a mall to go. Doubles from `39,167; (ritzcarlton.com).
ARASHIYAMA: Hoshinoya Kyoto: Exquisite base from which to explore Kyoto’s cultural sites between dedicated acupuncture and wellness sessions, tea and incense ceremonies, and complimentary sake sampling. Experience in-room hot-pot breakfasts in traditional ryokan style. Doubles from `42,158; (hoshinoya.com/kyoto).
KYOTO: Ritz-Carlton Kyoto: Riverside abode of unbridled luxuries with 409 pieces of art that evoke the old Kyoto. Doubles from `38,098; (ritzcarlton.com).
OSAKA: Ritz-Carlton Osaka: In Osaka’s smart quarters, this culinary address par excellence presents seven F&B options, besides an amazing Club Lounge. Doubles from `19,583; (ritzcarlton.com).
FUJI: Hoshinoya Fuji: Japan’s most original and exhilarating offering. You can canoe, hike, picnic, or book yourself in for outdoor culinary activities. Doubles from `27,060; (hoshinoya.com/fuji).
ATAMI: Hiramatsu Hotels & Resorts Atami: Luxurious gourmet getaway famous for a French-style restaurant where a Japanese chef trained at Hiramatsu’s Parisian restaurant effects French cuisine with Japanese nuances. Kinoshita, who designed the teahouse at the Golden Pavilion, created the Japanese suites Ume and Matsu. Doubles from `94,428; (hiramatsuhotels.com).
KANAZAWA: Beniya Mukayu, Ryokan Collection: Spa escape presenting innovative, all-natural body and facial therapies in a zen-like space. Doubles from `52,697; (ryokancollection.com).
NISEKO: Zaborin: Set in pristine isolation. Organises visits on request to Hokkaido’s vineyards and organic farms. Doubles from `53, 409; (zaborin.com).
YAKUSHIMA: Sankara Resort & Spa: Romantic perch with convenient access to North Yakushima’s natural and cultural riches. Doubles from `44,152; (sankarahotel-spa.com).
OPERATORS: SkiJapan.com (skijapan.com) books hotels and serviced apartments across Japan. Japan Private Tour (japan privatetour.com) offers airport transfers, tours, and luxury boat rides in Tokyo, and excursions from the city. YES! Yakushima (yesyakushima.com) offers rainforest excursions to Shiratani Unsuikyo and Yakusugi Land. From `17,800.